What makes a house historic?

Last week, the Historic District Commission reluctantly pulled the plug Nancy Oateson a house in the Gimghoul Historic District by approving a request by the owners of 704 Gimghoul to demolish the home.

The couple had purchased the house in March 2015 and had come to the HDC with a plan to make it live better for them — adding a main-floor master’s suite so they could age in place and adding space so they could entertain easier. The HDC approved the plan in August, pleased to usher this home, built in the 1920s, into a new generation.

But the estimates for the renovations came in double what the couple expected, so they returned to the HDC asking for permission to tear down the historic house and build a new one in keeping with the neighborhood.

Yet even if the owners were to build an exact replica of the original house, it would not be historic. It would be beautiful; it would fit in with its neighbors; but it would chip away at what is both a National Register historic neighborhood and a local one.

The HDC essentially had no choice but to approve the demolition. Had they denied the request, state law allows the owners to wait a year, then tear it down. The commission decided it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose to ask the owners to pay for an engineering report to document that the house was structurally unsound, nor to allow the house, which is vacant, to deteriorate into a neighborhood eyesore for a year, given that it was inevitable the owners would tear it down.

Such situations illustrate the pressure Historic District commissioners face in their decisions. Many historic homes are in very desirable, expensive neighborhoods. These days, buyers of historic properties have to be well off financially, and the wealthy often live differently than the rest of us. They entertain large groups frequently, for instance, and want more interior space and outdoor living space for entertaining; they want extra parking, fences for security and outbuildings for guests.

Often the buyers of these homes are well-known in town, perhaps are well-connected and may have made significant contributions to the community. They may have worked hard all their lives and now are in a position to afford their dream home. That makes it all the harder for the HDC to have to turn down requests for expansion and renovation that change the character of the historic property.

Historic District commissioners bring nuance and balance to their work. They are protecting something intangible that goes beyond cost and design. They preserve structures that carry the story of our community from the past, through the present and into the future.

Especially as our town grows and changes, we rely on those preservationists to escort us from who we were to who we will become.
– Nancy Oates

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1 Comment

  1. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  May 16, 2016

    I am curious as to why the town of Chapel Hill, with so much history, has so few historical markers. I absolutely love Hillsborough’s plethora of them. Does the HDC know how to get them from the state?